Published on April 4, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour


Plastic not so fantastic

A clutch of Newcastle pubs and bars is to ban plastic straws and cocktail stirrers in a bid to cut down on the city’s annual 142,000 tonnes of waste. The Cluny, Wylam Brewery Tap, the Mean Eyed Cat, Town Wall, Bridge Tavern, Red House, Lady Greys, Hop & Cleaver, Pleased To Meet You and Central Oven & Shaker have banded together to help reduce plastic waste by 10% by 2025 and by 23% by 2030.

The JD Wetherspoon group nationally has already taken action to cut plastic straw use by bringing in biodegradable substitutes, or giving them only to people who request them, while an industry-wide summit conference was scheduled for late March to raise awareness and invite initiatives to counter the problem.

However, it took the words of a 92-year-old broadcaster, naturalist and national treasure to make us sit up and take notice. Plastic waste is choking the world’s oceans, polluting the environment and killing wildlife, as highlighted in the recent Blue Planet II series narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Efforts to protect the environment by reducing plastic use have moved up the political agenda with January’s launch of the Government’s 25-year plan of targeted action. The UK’s imperative to cut plastic waste was further highlighted by China banning all plastic waste imports, raising concerns that waste collected in the UK to be shipped to China would quickly start to pile up.

New research indicates that the number of tiny particles of plastic polluting the world’s oceans is vastly greater than ever imagined. An enormous area of floating rubbish has been discovered in the Pacific, covering an area of 618,000 square miles – or three times the size of France – as reported in Nature magazine. About eight million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year, washing up on beaches, drifting out to sea, entangling and killing marine life, while tiny fragments are ingested by sea creatures. Plastic pieces take hundreds of years to break down and it’s estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

And the problem is not confined to some remote corner of the planet, no siree. Recent research reveals that the highest microplastic pollution ever recorded anywhere in the world is in the River Mersey, near Manchester. It also shows that the early 2016 floods in the area flushed more than 40 billion pieces of microplastic into the Irish Sea.

Glastonbury Festival is taking a break this year which is all well and good, and next year there is to be a site-wide ban on plastic bottles. In 2014, Glastonbury introduced environmentally-friendly steel bottles and water kiosks for free refills, followed two years later by stainless steel pint cups, although their use was optional.

Organisers reckon one million plastic bottles are used during the event – the same number that The Guardian estimates as being bought around the world every minute, creating an environmental crisis that could become as serious as climate change.

One has only to take a look at single-use KeyKegs used by pubs to start the recycling wheels turning. How easy is that to achieve? The company’s website states that the containers for keg beer are 100% recyclable, made up of an average of 30% recycled plastic and can save up to 60% of transport cots. But not all pubs are recycling them, with many piled up in back yards.

“We actually use KeyKegs, because there are more considerations than just plastic versus stainless steel,” says Dr Chris O’Malley from Newcastle University’s Stu Brew microbrewing facility. “From a Stu Brew perspective, we have no equipment to clean standard stainless steel kegs and no space to install it.

“There are transportation costs of delivering stainless – they are heavier – and then collecting empties and cleaning them add an environmental burden. KeyKegs are infinitely more scalable for us. We also recycle the kegs into stools to use at our events, but it’s an interesting problem to discuss.”

Along with colleague Sharon Joyce, Chris is considering putting in a sustainability research project for a Masters student to do a full cost benefit analysis on the lifecycle of the KeyKeg, among other projects.

The plastic disposable problem is accelerating quickly – many businesses are reducing single use by switching to biodegradable, disposable cutlery and platters and replacing plastic cups in vending machines with recyclable ones – and wouldn’t it be great if Newcastle and the North East were at the forefront of the braking process.

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Alastair Gilmour

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